Eating Cultures

Dogs packed to be sold for meat

Dogs packed to be sold for meat

When we last visited Hanoi in 2007, we saw numerous dog-meat eating places near the airport. This was pointed out to us by our friend who was living in the city. During our recent trip, they were gone. Was there a clean up? Apparently not so. Merely relocated as the land had become expensive and used for residential purpose.

According to Mae, our guide, dog-meat is considered a delicacy by North Vietnamese, not the South. If you see any dog-meat restaurants in the South, it is likely to be owned by a North Vietnamese. Although they do not wish to admit it, the North Vietnamese are quite influenced by Chinese culture and eating habits. Dog-meat is considered nutritious, warming for the body but can only be eaten for 10 days from the 21st to the end of the month (lunar calendar). Hence dog-meat restaurants are only opened during that period. Otherwise, eating dog meat is harmful to the body. The Northerners eat cat meat too, which they term “little tigers”.

Another difference between North and South Vietnamese custom is the tradition of inheritance. In the North, largest share of the property is given to the eldest son, similar to the Chinese. In the South, largest share of the property is given to the youngest, who usually stays behind to look after the parents.

Mae is a Taoist, so she doesn’t eat dog meat. Why do Vietnamese eat beef as in pho if they are Buddhists/ Taoists? In Singapore, the Buddhists/ Taoists do not eat beef but Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Thais do. Told by Thais, its because Buddhists are not choosy over their food, I didn’t find the explanation convincing. When McDonalds’ first came to Singapore, as children we were not allowed to eat hamburgers. Only Fillet O’Fish. Cows help the rice farmers in the padi fields, my mother insisted. Out of gratitude to the cows for giving us rice, we do not eat beef. [Hindus do not eat beef because cows are considered sacred.] So I was very surprised when I found that the Vietnamese and Thais who also plant padi and ethnically close to the Chinese in terms of religious beliefs, do.

Turns out, they don’t eat water cows (water buffalos) “shui niu” but they eat yellow cow “huang niu”. Being a Vietnamese Chinese Taoist, Mae eats beef from yellow cow, not the water cow. Mae even had an account of how she was once tricked by a beef pho seller into eating “water cow” meat. Before she stepped into her home which had an altar, she vomited everything. Immediately, she knew she had committed the ultimate sin. Cleansed herself, and burned her joss sticks to be forgiven.

Every culture has its own list of taboo food. When I first went to the UK for training, I was shocked by the rabbit meat on the menu. Unfortunately, as we were huddled in an old run-down castle, with no transport, and the nearest town 2 hours away, I swallowed a little of the meat. Personally, I don’t like to eat exotic meat, even though nothing stops me from doing so. Of course, exotic is subjective.  Sea cucumber, sea urchin, puffer fish, Duck neck/tongue, geoduck, shark’s fin, snake, I do not consider as exotic.  Skewered chicken backside, horse, monkey, dog meat, ostrich and turtle meat I won’t touch.  Beef – only in American or Japanese restaurants or Vietnamese pho.

As a child, I disliked eating pork, to my mother’s inconvenience, although I like to eat frog’s legs very much. Once upon a time, I ate coagulated pig’s blood cake in Pig intestine soup. When it was banned in Singapore, I thought I would miss it. Now I can’t imagine doing so.

I used to feel sorry for the expatriates in Vietnam, seeing how pathetic the raw meat/ vegetable section looked like in a supermarket in a department store.  Until I went to a Vietnamese wet market, and then I felt really sorry for the expatriate. The Vietnamese wet market I went to, patronised by local Vietnamese, is opened from 9am to 9pm, filled with great variety of fresh herbs, vegetable, meat and live seafood still swimming in tanks. Alas, as I can’t speak Vietnamese, I don’t know what the real price of the food items were.

Skinning a frog at the local market

Skinning a frog at the local market

Coagulated pigs' blood

Coagulated pigs’ blood at Vietnam market

Chicken feet, silkworms

Chicken feet, silkworms in Vietnam market

Recently, I met someone who’s turned vegetarian, out of compassion for animals. Has her complexion and health improved, I asked, hoping to find some compelling reason to convert. Meat sans seasoning has no taste, she offered. Whereas fresh vegetables from local farms are very sweet.  Maybe in due course.

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